Locals flock to bear safety class

Sunday, July 16, 2017 - 00:16
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Eagle River resident Luz Mann practices deploying bear spray at a bear safety presentation at the Eagle River Nature Center on June 25, 2017. Bear encounters in the Eagle River Valley are common, experts said.
  • Alaskans practice deploying bear spray during a bear safety presentation at the Eagle River Nature Center on June 25, 2017. Bear encounters in the Eagle River Valley are common, experts said. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Eagle River resident John Mann, holding a photo of two bears spotted near his home recently, attends a bear safety presentation at the Eagle River Nature Center on June 25, 2017. About three dozen people attended the Sunday afternoon event. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • A bear spray demonstration at the Eagle River Nature Center on June 25, 2017. About three dozen people attended the afternoon presentation on safety in bear country. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

After two fatal maulings and several close encounters made headlines around the state recently, a presentation on safety in bear country drew several dozen locals to the Chugiak-Eagle River Nature Center Sunday afternoon.

“We really want people to understand their risks and know how to mitigate them,” said Elizabeth Manning, an educator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “It doesn’t mean that we can eliminate risks 100 percent of the time – that’s just not feasible – but we want to empower you.”

In Chugiak-Eagle River, humans and bears share the same space, Manning said. Bear sightings are common. At the nature center, it happens every day, according to nature center volunteers.

For many attendees, the Sunday presentation provided an extra dose of confidence and bear-consciousness.

“We just kind of wanted to be aware,” said Eagle River resident Michelle Mann, who attended the Sunday presentation with her husband and teenage daughter.

After moving to Alaska from Missouri two years ago, Mann said, her family recently purchased a home deep in the Eagle River Valley. Since then, she said, they’ve spotted black bears and brown alike.

News of recent maulings made Mann “a little bit nervous,” she said, but she isn’t planning on staying indoors anytime soon.

“I know that we’re living in their community, so we just have to be aware,” she said. “We love to be outside in nature, so I don’t want it to keep us from being outside; I don’t want to be scared in my own backyard or anything like that.”

Over the course of a 30-minute informational video, attendees learned about all about bears: their territory, their behavior, their diets, their distinct characteristics, the differences between defensive and predatory bear attacks and the various ways to avoid both. While violent encounters are rare, according to experts, defensive attacks – caused by startled or threatened bears, often with young or prey – are the most common. In general, predatory attacks are few and far between, Manning said.

Experts offered a few common-sense tips for avoiding both: Travel in groups. Bear attacks are exponentially less likely to happen when traveling a group of four or more, according to ADFG:

Make noise. While tools like bells and air horns can work, the sound of the human voice is the best deterrent, Manning said.

Camp smart. Avoid exposed food and garbage, and keep food and other pungent products well away from your tent site

Stay calm. If you encounter a bear, assess the situation, experts said. Bears have an excellent sense of smell, so if you see a bear, chances are good it’s aware of your presence, Manning said. Try to retreat slowly, talking in a low, calm voice, experts said — never run

In case of a charge, stand your ground – most charges are bluffs, according to experts

If a black bear attacks, fight back, experts said. If a brown bear attacks, play dead, lay on your stomach and protect the back of your neck and face, they said.

For more information, visit ADFG.Alaska.gov.

The response should always depend on the type of bear and the situation, Manning said. Critical thinking can be the most valuable weapon in your arsenal, she said. Not all bears are the same, not all encounters are the same and not all responses should be the same, either, she said.

“With bears, there’s some variability,” Manning said.

The lessons were a welcome refresher for new Alaskans and sourdoughs alike. An experienced outdoorsman who lives just a few miles from the nature center, Chris Meyer said he came to hear from the experts.

“I’ve been out in the woods quite a bit, but I’ve never caught any formal training, so I thought, ‘Let me go check this out and see if there’s something new that I could learn about,’” he said.

Nearly an hour after the presentation began, Manning steered the group outside for a demonstration and hands-on lesson in bear spray deployment. Adults and teenagers lined up behind the nature center, taking turns shooting cans of inert bear spray into the bushes.

Chugiak resident Christi Sitz watched her son and his friend take turns with the cans. She said the bear awareness presentation was a last-minute preparation for a Sunday night camping trip.

“We rented the yurt, and I’ve been scared to death to have to hike out there with them and camp alone in the woods,” Sitz said. “So I figured it would be a good kick-off to our camping excursion.”

She said she was comforted by the knowledge that the human voice is one of the most effective deterrents. With three boys in tow, she said, “I think it’ll be alright.”

They carried bear spray just in case, Sitz said. They’d just practiced using it.

“I think we’re pretty prepared,” she said. “It’ll be fun.”

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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